I’ve written about being a Highly Sensitive Person on this blog several times now, and each time I’m amazed by the intensity with which people respond to this topic. There are always a few critics who belittle or question the HSP concept, yet based on the huge number of page reads and overwhelmingly positive (and often grateful) responses, there really does seem to be something to this HSP phenomenon.
I first learned of this relatively common but misunderstood trait – and recognized myself in it – via the work of psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron (for detailed info on her work in this area, as well as an HSP self-test, see www.hsperson.com ). According to Aron’s stats, HSPs make up 15-20 percent of the population yet often don’t have a name for what has made them feel or seem "strange" or "overly sensitive" their entire life.
HSPs are easily overwhelmed by stimuli, get stressed by loud noises and strong smells, are extremely perceptive, have rich and often intense internal lives, and need plenty of quiet and down time to maintain their equilibrium (and sanity, I would personally add).
It was a great relief to me to finally understand what was "wrong" with me. I now even had an explanation for why I find any kind of violence, even the fake Hollywood kind, so abhorrent. It’s not easy to go to a epic action movie with friends and to be the only one sobbing after war scenes (despite having covered my eyes the whole time – having only two hands I’m not able to cover my ears and the battle sounds alone are usually enough to push me over the edge).
Knowing what I am has helped so much, especially when it comes to supporting myself through experiences that otherwise might overload my hypersensitive senses. Here, for you, are my top ten survival strategies:
1) Get enough sleep
Lack of sleep (less than 7 hours, for most people) is well known to produce irritability, moodiness, and decreased concentration and productivity in the average person. Given our already ramped-up senses, I’m convinced that lack of sleep can make a highly sensitive life almost unbearable. Getting enough sleep soothes your senses and will help you cope with an already overwhelming world.
2) Eat healthy foods regularly throughout the day
Aron points out that extreme hunger can be disruptive to an HSP’s mood or concentration. Keep your edgy nerves happy by maintaining a steady blood sugar level through regular healthy well-balanced meals and snacks. I also take fish oil (omega-3) supplements daily as the brain loves these, lots of studies support their beneficial cognitive and emotional effects.
3) Wear noise-reducing headphones
A boyfriend introduced Peltor ear protecting headphones (usually used by construction workers, not pre-med students) to me when I was 19 and studying for exams. No matter where I am in the world I have had a pair with me ever since. HSPs are highly sensitive to noise, especially the kind we can’t control, and my beloved headphones give me control over my personal peace in what’s all too often a noisy intrusive world.
4) Plan in decompression time
HSPs don’t do well with an overly packed schedule or too much time in noisy, crowded or high pressure environments. If you know you’re going to spend a few hours in a challenging environment – such as a concert, a parade, or a crowded mall at Christmas time – know that you’re likely to be frazzled after and will need to decompress somewhere quiet and relaxing, on your own if possible.
5) Have at least one quiet room or space to retreat to in your home
If you live with others, create a quiet safe place you can retreat to when you need to get away from people and noise. This could be a bedroom, a study, or even just a candlelit bath (or shower if that’s all you have!). I’ve found it often helps to listen to quiet relaxing music as well, this can even drown out more jarring external noise when you need it to.
6) Give yourself time and space to get things done
I mentioned above that HSPs don’t do well with a packed schedule. I’ve managed to structure my work life so that I work afternoon/evening shifts the days I’m at the medical clinic. This way I’m able to get out of bed without an alarm, eat a calm unrushed breakfast and putter around before getting down to business. The calm this gives me carries through my whole day. Another strategy for those who work in the morning might be getting up extra early (after 8 hours sleep, of course) to enjoy the quiet before the rest of the household wakes up.
7) Limit caffeine
HSPs are sensitive to caffeine – I usually can’t even handle the traces of caffeine found in decaf coffee. If you’re a coffee drinker (or dark chocolate junkie) and identify with the HSP trait description, giving up the joe might be a big step towards feeling more collected and calm.
8) Keep the lights down low
I’ve never liked bright lights and learning about HSP helped me understand why. Minimizing light stimulation goes a long way: I only put on low lights in the evening, and prefer to shop in certain local grocery stores which have gentle mood lighting, avoiding the garishly lit, crowded "big box" stores whenever I can.
9) Get things done in off hours
To avoid crowds and the associated noise and stimulation, I’ve learned to live my life outside of the average person’s schedule. I grocery shop late in the evenings, run errands during the week whenever I can, go to movies on weeknights, and go out for my walks before the rest of the world hits the jogging path. An added bonus: by avoiding the crowds I usually get things done faster , and almost always get a parking spot!
10) Surround yourself with beauty and nature
Since we HSPs are so sensitive and deeply affected by our surroundings, envelop yourself with beauty and calm whenever possible. I’ve decorated my home simply in a way that’s very pleasing to my eye, with minimal clutter and chaos. I also spend as much time as I can walking in nature, enjoying the quiet and its naturally healing and calming beauty.
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Susan Biali, MD is an internationally recognized medical doctor, wellness expert, life coach, speaker and flamenco dancer. She has performed for and taught celebrities, and speaks and dances across North America. Dr. Biali blogs for PsychologyToday.com and appears regularly in media, including Fox News ABC,CBS,NBC and CTV, Global and CITYTV networks in Canada. Her opinions appear in publications such as Cosmopolitan, Self, Fitness, Hello!, The Medical Post, Reader’s Digest Best Health, Chatelaine and The Chicago Tribune. She is the author of the best selling book Live a Life You Love! Seven Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You (Beaufort Books, New York). To order Live a Life You Love, click on these links to Amazon.com and Amazon.ca